Thursday, 9 March 2017

“Now we are Forty.” … or is that “Now we are Five-Hundred”? (First draft)

“Now we are Forty.” …
or is that “Now we are Five-Hundred”?
Some thoughts on the anniversaries in 2017 of the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia and of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Anniversaries, particularly anniversaries ending with a zero (and most particularly those ending with multiple zeros), are often occasions both for looking back and for looking forward.  With most such anniversaries, whether the looking forward is useful or not is often determined by the extent to which the looking back is dominated by uncritical self-celebration, merciless self-flaggelation, or sober self-assessment.

In any event, it is an interesting coincidence that this year of 2017 sees both the fortieth anniversary of the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia (22nd June 1977) and the five-hundredth anniversary of the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Luther posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg (30th October 1517).

For any of us in denominations that see Luther’s act as a part of our heritage, and particularly for those of us within the particular community of the Uniting Church in Australia, this year can be a useful occasion of sober self-assessment.

The heritage of the Reformation

For all of us who are heirs of the Reformation, there are many gifts that this sixteenth-century movement has given to the whole Christian faith.  Most prominent among these gifts, in my mind, are the following affirmations:

·        Our relationship with God is firmly grounded in God’s grace and mercy, not in any attempt on our own part to “earn” a relationship with God.

·        The life of Christian faith must involve an encounter and an active interaction with the Scriptures, both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures.

·        Solid, critical scholarship (biblical scholarship, theological scholarship, historical scholarship, ethical scholarship) is a healthy and essential element of the life of the Christian community.

·        Lay Christians are active participants in the ministry and mission of the Christian Church, not merely passive recipients of ministry.

Five hundred years following the beginning of the Reformation, these affirmations (while characteristic of the Reformation) are not exclusively Protestant concerns.  These are affirmation which, in my observation, are made as enthusiastically by Christians within Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic contexts as they are by those within Protestant contexts (and, in some cases, even more so).

Nevertheless, I believe the situation is changing.  Two phrases I use frequently in this context involve:

·        the necessity of all Christians today to do their faith with “a Catholic heart and a Protestant mind”, and

·        the need for those of us in churches which reflect the heritage of the Reformation to move into a “post-Protestant” stage in our life together.

This paper is an attempt to encourage the development of a “post-Protestant” faith within the UCA, and one that clearly operates with “a Catholic heart and a Protestant mind”.

Has Protestantism passed its “use-by date”?

I strongly suspect that, on its own, the Protestant movement within the Christian Church has reached its “use-by” date, like a can of antique peaches in a supermarket.  Just as Communism had “Use by 1989” on its “label”, and just as Market Capitalism had a “label” saying it was “best by” either 2008, 1987, or 1929 (depending on the economists and historians to whom one listens), so also the Protestant movement within Christianity reached its “use-by date” sometime during the past few decades.

It all has to do with our cerebral style of worship.  Most mainstream Protestant churches have a style of worship in which the dominant elements of the service are teaching and learning.  This is the case whether:

·        the teaching and learning takes the form of a traditional sermon or some other form,

·        the style of music and liturgy is “traditional” or “contemporary”,

·        the theology expressed in the worship service is “conservative evangelical”, “liberal / progressive”, “neo-orthodox”, or something in the middle of these three extremes.

In each case, there is the goal (spoken or unspoken) that all worshippers present will learn something about their faith as a result of attending worship.

During our lifetimes, a cultural shift took place in terms of attendance at public worship.  It was no longer seen as necessary for a person to attend a church or synagogue to be regarded as a positive and respectable member of the community.  People no longer felt a need to have an affiliation with a local congregation for a range of non-religious reasons.

When I was a theological student, our lecturer in preaching reminded us never to assume that everyone in the congregation was a believing Christian, and that (particularly in the middle-class congregations most of us would be serving) there would be a significant number of agnostics in the congregation, attending worship for a range of cultural, but non-religious, reasons.  That comment may have reflected the time in the 1950s during which our lecturer was a parish minister himself, but even by the time he made these comments to us in 1975 (let alone by now), most agnostics had already stopped attending worship services.

In all this, our teaching-learning style of worship is based on the assumption that people attend worship services at least partly to learn information about religion.  This is no longer the case, if it ever was.  People living today now have a range of ways (both face-to-face and, increasingly, online) to learn all sorts of information (admittedly, of a wide range of quality) about religion. 

I believe that people today who attend worship services, either regularly or occasionally, do so because they wish to encounter the God worshipped by the community gathered for worship.  In practice, I believe this means that congregations whose service of worship is focused on teaching and learning, and in which the focus is on speaking about God rather than relating with God, may not be the communities of faith that most meet the needs of our wider communities.

What does this mean for the Uniting Church in Australia today?

The UCA’s decline is not a result of Union.

First of all, I want to say that I do not believe that the decline in membership which many congregations of the UCA have experienced in recent decades is the result of the Union that took place in 1977.  This decline is part of being a teaching-and-learning-oriented Protestant denomination in our time of history.  Overseas denominations of similar traditions, but which have not experienced a recent union, have still seen similar declines in membership to that experienced by the UCA.  I believe that, had Union not happened, the UCA’s three parent churches would now be in a similar state of numerical decline as the UCA is now in, or possibly (as I suspect) worse.

There is much to celebrate about the UCA.

Secondly – despite the decline and the malaise we’re currently experiencing as a church – there is much we can celebrate about the life and ministry of the Uniting Church in Australia.

·        We maintain a diverse network of services meeting human need across Australia, through a variety of agencies, including services offered in some of the nation’s most remote areas.

·        We actively stand alongside many of our nation’s most vulnerable communities, including indigenous people, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

·        We strongly affirm the ministry of women in every one of our church’s ministries, both lay and ordained.

·        An increasing number of our congregations have committed themselves to be safe places and to be places of welcome for LGBT people.  As a denomination, we are at least open to ministry by LGBT people (with that openness being more of a fact in some places than others).

·        Almost every one of our church’s congregations has a policy of an “open table” at Holy Communion.

·        Across the nation, our local congregations provide effective communities of pastoral care and mutual support both to their members and to people in the congregations’ wider community networks.

There is much we can celebrate about what God is doing in our church.

Our communities need the UCA.

Thirdly, I believe – despite the decline and the malaise we’re currently experiencing as a church – the Uniting Church in Australia needs to continue in existence as worshipping congregations in local communities, for the pastoral good of the communities where we minister. 

·        At a time when many Christian churches in Australia only ordain men, our communities still need the UCA. 

·        At a time when some Christian churches do not welcome members of other churches (or divorced-and-remarried members of their own church) to the Lord’s Table, our communities still need the UCA.

·        At a time when many Pentecostal and Evangelical churches have sold their soul to the “dark side” and live in a Faustian relationship with the extreme political Right, our communities still need the UCA.

·        At a time when many Christian churches do not fully welcome LGBT people into their congregations, our communities still need the UCA.

I don’t know if the UCA will have strength to carry on until our particular existence as a denomination is no longer needed by our communities.  Pray that we may.

The UCA needs to look critically at its worship.

Fourthly, however, we still need to look critically at what we are doing as a church on Sunday mornings.  Whatever else a church may be doing well, if a church is not worshipping well, there is a strong dimension of malaise in the church’s life.

I do not believe that a pattern of church life in which almost all our Sunday morning gatherings, in almost every congregation, are primarily focused on teaching and learning is a sustainable pattern of church life for the UCA in the long term, whether the style is that of:

·        a 1950s-style Preaching Service (the traditional Protestant Service of the Word, but with everything in the service adapted to attention spans formed by commercial television), or

·        a 1970s-style Childrens’ Service (any service that is oriented toward the involvement of children, whether it’s called a “Family Service”, “All-age Worship”, “Messy Church”, or anything else), or

·        any other style of an essentially teaching-and-learning-oriented style of worship.

If these teaching-and-learning experiences are our only worship choices, our future as a worshipping community will not be sustainable in the long run.

Four possible future “strands” of congregational life in the UCA.

For the UCA, or for any other denomination within the mainstream of the Protestant strand of the Church’s life elsewhere, I believe that (if the church is to develop in a healthy way into the future) local worshipping congregations will increasingly be found to express one of four main strands in terms of their worship.

I call the first of these four strands ecumenically liturgical.  Worship each week in this strand is seen as comprising both Word and Sacrament.  There would be a balance of contemporary and traditional language in worship, as there would also be a balance of musical styles.  In some ways, this gathering for worship may look, sound, and feel very similar to a Roman Catholic Mass in the tradition of the Second Vatican Council.  However, there are two highly significant differences between this gathering and the Mass, even in its Vatican II mode:

·        In this gathering for Word and Sacrament, the invitation to receive the Sacrament would be extended to all who are present, rather than only to some (as it is at Mass).

·        In this gathering for Word and Sacrament, the person presiding at the Eucharist could be of either gender, of any marital status, and of a varied range of sexualities, as compared to the person presiding at Mass who is expected to be male, celibate, and heterosexual.

I call the second of these four strands charismatically contemporary.  The weekly gathering in this strand reflects the “praise and worship” tradition of the Pentecostal churches.  However, there are some significant differences between this strand and the average Pentecostal church:

·        These gatherings for praise and worship would be led by people who have a wider grasp of the tradition of the Christian faith, and a more mature and comprehensive understanding of scripture, than is the case in many Pentecostal congregations.

·        These gatherings for praise and worship would have far less of a “showbiz” feel than many services do in Pentecostal congregations.

·        In these gatherings for praise and worship, the sacrament of Holy Communion (however frequently it would be celebrated) will have a more central role in the congregation’s life than it does in many Pentecostal congregations.

·        These gatherings for praise and worship would certainly reject the Faustian relationship that has existed between some Pentecostal churches and the extreme political Right in many English-speaking countries, including Australia.

I call the third of these four strands experientially contemplative.  The gatherings for worship in this strand of church life, which may be weekly or which may be offered at some other frequency, would offer worshippers diverse opportunities to deepen their faith experientially.  These may include such experiences as the profound silence of a Quaker-style Meeting for Worship, … meditation using Eastern Orthodox icons, … walking a medieval-style labyrinth, … reflection on Scripture using the discipline of lectio divina, … exploring Celtic styles of Christian spirituality, … singing meditative worship songs from the Taizé Community… etc.

And the fourth of these strands of congregational life is our existing pattern of teaching-and-learning-oriented congregations, offered for those many worshippers in the life of our congregations who honestly, sincerely, and conscientiously regard this particular pattern of Sunday gatherings as the best way for them to do church and to be church, at least at this time.

Into the future

I believe that the future of the Uniting Church in Australia (and of similar churches overseas) would be best secured if each of these strands of church life were offered in all major centres where the Uniting Church is found. 

I believe the first three strands I’ve mentioned are necessary to carry the UCA into its future, while the fourth strand is essential now if we are to continuing ministering well to the people with whom the UCA is presently in ministry.  Enabling the first three strands of congregations to develop in many communities will depend on the generosity of congregations in the fourth strand.  I have confidence in this generosity.

I believe this future would require that congregations in each of these four strands would need to recognise, affirm, and respect congregations in each of the other strands as being part of the same Uniting Church.  While I first wrote the previous sentence including the phrase “it goes without saying”, I believe we need to say it overtly.  This paper was my attempt to say it.

This paper has recently been accepted for publication in a periodical.  It's been edited and (in my opinion) improved in the process by the publication's editor.  When the paper is published in hard copy later this year, I will post the edited and improved version on this blog.  As of now, I will describe this paper in its title as a "first draft".

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.